Breaking through the Bamboo: Curatorial Statement

Having moved to an extremely white neighborhood in middle school, I just wanted to fit in. Quickly, I made white friends, played sports with white kids, studied hard, and adjusted pretty well. However, even back then, although I was not at all in touch with the Asian side of my identity, I could sense some degree of othering, even amongst friends. Not knowing better, I distanced myself from my Asianness, tokenizing myself, normalizing the othering of other Asian students, and working hard.

Even so, when I heard about college affirmative action for the first time, my world changed. Although I was probably in denial about the degree of othering that Asians received, it had never occurred to me that excellence could be systematically invalidated on the basis of one’s race. None of the adults and peers around me could give me an acceptable explanation, and to this day I have yet to hear one. The primary reason for my involvement in Asian American studies is the desire to be able to explain the dynamics behind such a blatantly racist system.

I have since learned that affirmative action is a part of a larger societal repression known as the ‘bamboo ceiling’, where preconceptions created by the model minority myth stunt the career advancement of Asians across all industries, especially towards leadership roles. This class has given me the framework to understand how popular culture perpetuates this attitude, and various ways that Asian Americans can resist.

The lack of Asian American representation in popular culture is largely responsible for the bamboo ceiling. The lack of representation means that Asians do not have agency to shape our own narratives and identities in the context of American culture. As pop culture inevitably represents Asians as jokes and model minorities, Asian Americans as a whole lose credibility in society, leading to even less visibility. The model minority myth is toxic in two ways. Due to a lack of a role model in media, Asian Americans cannot envision themselves taking on power positions. Also, established people in power cannot envision entrusting Asians with power due to a (sub)conscious media-driven perception.

This class has taught me to recognize the orientalization, cultural appropriation, and cultural consumption that permeates the Asian representation in media. I learned that tokenization is a form of cultural consumption. In my third blog post, I explored how Wild’n Out is problematic in the sense that it creates humor at the expense of an Asian male trying to fit in into black culture, and failing to do so. Along the same light, I learned how uncomfortable American society is with a leading Asian character, leading to white castings as protagonists of characters written as Asian. This is problematic because it devalues Asian bodies while perpetuating a white erasure of Asian culture.

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In the face of this repression created by a lack of visibility, alternative media is a great place for resistance. YouTube, defined by its capacity for creative freedom, has created a platform for Asian American creators to create media for a unified Asian American audience that did not exist before. YouTube allows creators to establish their own personas and narratives. In doing so, Asian YouTubers can create a hero persona for themselves independent of the model minority myth, and give the Asian youth role models in the media to enable cultural calibration. Seeing Asian Americans in a positive light in YouTube allows the youth to explore the Asian side of their identities that would harmoniously merge with their American ones.

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More than YouTubers, Asian Americans that are not complicit to or representative of orientalization are important in deconstructing the model minority myth. Asians, in the myth, are often placed in the feminine, seen as meek and submissive. Jeremy Lin, who I talk about in my second blog post, defies his preconceived image as unathletic and meek by playing an aggressive, drive-first style and experimenting with flamboyant hairstyles. Recently, the GM of the Houston Rockets regretfully admitted that Lin was the 15th best player in the draft according to their model, but he was likely undrafted due to his race. Constant defiance of the model minority myth through bold excellence eventually forces the mainstream to recognize the myth’s absurdity.

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Looking at media and pop culture with a more critical gaze through this class, I notice how easily people were willing to racially trivialize Asians. The show Wild’n Out showed me that society is willing to say things about Asians that would be unacceptable to say about another race, showing Asians’ lack of cultural capital. Due a lack of representation, Asians are unable to defend themselves against the widespread manipulation of their image. Therefore, to reverse and deconstruct the societal attitudes about Asians, Asian representation in mainstream media must hit a threshold where they have a say in the cultural attitude. At this point, an ideal Asian depiction would be one that is dignified, integrated, and decommodified within the larger American culture. To reach this point, Asians have a responsibility to support and promote Asian Americans in pop culture, as well as the alternative culture.

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